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In her relatively short fiction career, Annie Proulx has been lauded by international critics, laureled with awards from the Pulitzer to the National Book, and anthologized in the Best American Short Stories of the Century. And now, a true sign of Arrival, she's being staged by Word for Word. I'm not being sarcastic. It may be the best thing that's happened to her. Some people doubt Proulx, and hate her language -- those oblique phrases, that terse, confusing imagery -- so to have it tested as oral storytelling could be the bite that proves the coin.
Word for Word has chosen a strong, quirky story from Proulx's most recent collection, Close Range, to mount without changing a single word of text (which is the whole point of Word for Word). "The Bunchgrass Edge of the World" weaves three or four anecdotes into a compact family saga set on the Wyoming plain. Red Touhey, "ninety-six years young," and the family headed by his son, Aladdin, raise cattle in the Red Wall country. The story centers around Ottaline, a fat daughter laden with unfulfilled dreams, but it begins and ends with Red, "older than kerosene now and strong to make his century."
When the story gets going, you think it'll be some kind of routine about a naive and lonely farmer's daughter who runs off to the city, but what happens instead is that Ottaline strikes up a friendship with a broken, talking tractor. This tractor -- a John Deere 4030 -- is full of complaints. Aladdin and the ranch hands have neglected his brakes, mistreated his clutch, overrevved his engine; and the poor machine has had a crush on Ottaline ever since she was 10, when Aladdin set her in the driver's seat. Tractors are sensitive to such things, apparently. They get a lot of ass and play favorites. But before anything serious can happen with the tractor, Ottaline meets and marries a cattle dealer named Flyby Amendinger.
The story lopes, veers suddenly, and hardly bothers with suspense. It has long stretches of slack exposition, which Word for Word can't improve, so reading the story beforehand is a good idea. But the company can shape Proulx's language and emphasize her poker-faced humor. Lines that might be read two or three different ways on the page stand up as clear, stark imagery when a performer commits them to voice: "The country appeared as empty ground, big sagebrush, rabbitbrush, intricate sky, flocks of small birds like packs of cards thrown up in the air, and a faint track drifting toward the red-walled horizon" is the first sentence. Dennis Ludlow, in jeans and a scruffy beard as old Red, gives it the right weight and tone.
Ludlow plays a pitch-perfect old man, in fact, as long as he remembers his lines. He wears a crumpled straw cowboy hat, glasses, and an unbuttoned shirt, and speaks with an ornery growl. But on opening night he still stumbled over words, as did a few other cast members. Paul Finocchiaro plays a strong Aladdin, "with a rancher's expectation of disaster," especially in the soliloquy scene in which Aladdin curls up in the cab of his truck. "Sometimes, drugged and fallen, he spent the night out in a draw, cramped on the front seat." Susan Harloe has the right look and manner as Wauneta, Aladdin's wife, but seems to lack hard-bitten conviction.
Amy Kossow's performance as Ottaline, though, is what makes the production sing. With the talking John Deere she can be tender without losing her sense of the absurd; alone in her room, during Ottaline's long soliloquies, she wrenches loneliness and a desperate stir-craziness from Proulx's bare descriptions of landscape. "From her bed she saw the moon-bleached grain elevator and behind it immeasurable range flecked with cows like small black seeds." With B. Chico Purdiman, as Flyby, she also does a brilliant job of evoking the giddy start of a love affair in scenes ostensibly about trading cattle.
Brian Keith Russell personifies the tractor, actually striding onstage (in a break with the story) in a dapper black suit and yellow tie. He delivers the tractor's funniest lines in a smug, sinister, canny voice. He's also good as Tyler, Ottaline's brother, but sometimes he overdoes the humor. In fact, the whole show is guilty of exaggerating what Proulx takes pains not to exaggerate. Her prose is notch-mouthed and grim -- "There was an explosion like a mighty backfire, but no flame" is how somebody dies -- and the cast, you might say, sometimes tries to add flame. But I've heard of worse crimes. "Bunchgrass," overall, passes the test of oral storytelling with excellent, doubt-erasing marks.
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